Comprehensive review of alpha of Samaa TV citizen journalism service – it concerns your privacy

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Sometime over the past two weeks Samaa TV has very quietly put up the first version of its citizen journalism platform on the web, called "MySamaa". The system is open for free registration by all, which means that this is probably the final version (after all, they cant be testing the application on a live server so I’m assuming everything here is meant for users to use), but I would still give them the benefit of doubt and call it an alpha – atleast its a step towards user-generated news. Since it is a web application, though, it deserves the same look under the microscope that we give every other startup trying to claim they’re changing the world.

(Side note: Isnt it great that a site like Green & White exists which provides all this free consulting for nothing but pats on the back and the occaisional coffee? NO ITS NOT, if you’re me and spent 4 hours reviewing someone else’s mistakes for free…. so next time maybe I should be charging $200 / hr for this like my other clients)

At a snapshot, their citizen journalism service lets anyone upload news in videos, images or audio and it is published directly on the main website under the citizen journalism section here. This is I think the first time a media organization is blending their own editorials with user-generated news in the same website.

Ofcourse, user-generated news is a somewhat vague statement, given that one of the new items there currently is a picture of a cat playing.

But actually on a more detailed look I found out quite a bit of things to note for improvement. Despite these shortcomings, I’ll say this site is still far better than Dawn’s approach to Citizen Journalism. Dawn kindof lost that race when they required people to submit a paper application by snail mail with copies of their CNICs.

Anyway, on with the review – if you are considering using their service I’d suggest you take a long hard look here because it concerns your privacy.

(P.s. for organizations, take note to actually hire consultants to vet the site before going live to avoid these issues.)

(P.s. for techies – if you had any doubts that usability isnt important, forget what you know and read this review.)

Site doesnt work well on Firefox

This is just a minor nitpick. It works fine on IE and Google Chrome, but wont in Safari (see later for why).

Signup Page

The user signup / registration page is asking for way too much information. In the US – any information that isnt immediately required by the app is considered a serious violation of privacy and I thought some of the information here was excessive, such as cellphone number, date of birth, address and more. This is especially so because this information is not used anywhere else in the app (you’ll see later). Sure, the company might need this for demographics analysis but whats in it for the user for sharing that part of his or her life?

Also, some of the information I thought they could just infer – e.g. if I do give my cellphone number, they should be able to guess my city, even if a percentage of those guesses are wrong.

The site is just incredibly slow

The signup page, login page and first page after login each took 5 mins to load on a 1mbps dsl connection. So it took me 15 mins just to get in. The point of user-generated sites is to have a minimal number of hinderances in front of a user uploading something… to let him get there in the quickest possible time, and these speeds wont help.

Disclaimer in official company email

After registration I got an official confirmation email from Samaa with the link to log in. The email was fine – as a user I was just beginning to get the feeling that a bond was building between me and the company and I was just beginning to look forward to working with the company for all the nice professional things written in the email.

Then, however, I saw this disclaimer at the end which completely threw me off:

Best wishes,
The SAMAA TV Team

*Disclaimer
The Samaa TV is not responsible for the content of this e-mail, and anything written in this e-mail does not necessarily reflect the Samaa TV’s views or opinions. Please note that neither the e-mail address nor name of the sender have been verified.

What? No no no sorry – I dont know who at Samaa believes that "whatever the company says shall become the fact of life" but there are limits to what an organization can claim to not be responsible for. This email is an OFFICIAL email generated by SAMAA servers on a SAMAA application straight for a computer-controlled form. There is no way that SAMAA cannot be responsible for this email since there is absolutely no one in between SAMAA and my inbox who could have anything to do with this email. None of the content on the email is user-generated.

This completely threw me off because here’s a company saying "Lets get started on our exciting initiative, best wishes….. err but that doesnt reflect my actual opinion" … do they actually want me to live a lonely life of misery? I mean why on earth would you say that these good wishes and help doesnt reflect Samaa’s opinons?

I for one cant let them just conveniently choose to not be responsible for this email – an organization cannot just choose to absolve itself from all blame because IT believes its untouchable. That was what all of our Social Responsibility blog "Social Bridges" was about.

 

Opens in Profile page – makes me think I made a mistake

Anyway, so after registration I login and come to…. the same form I just filled to sign up? Hmm? Did I make a mistake here… is any field with a star next to it or… OH, its "my profile" page.

Its pretty confusing to sign up straight into your profile page because it looks exactly like the signup page. I for one thought I had made a mistake and the system was asking me to fill in some form accurately.

 

Story Submission Screen

So onwards to submit a story – this screen again has a very very big form. The convention (again) for user-generated sites is to just not stand in the way of the user and his upload. So you let him upload right on the main page after login, and after the upload you could offer an additional "optional" screen where he can add more info about the upload.

In this case though, there’s a very large form here, again with a lot of unnecessary fields. They can take the "date of story" from the date and time I’m uploading, or from the images EXIF data, for example. The city must be typed in (why?) instead of just chosen from a drop-down. Also I can only add one tag and cant choose from other tags in the system… this will cause major content organization problems to Samaa effetively rendering the user-generated content un-navigable and useless on the front end beyond whatever appears on a single page at a time.

I tried going through the process as a user multiple times and in all fairness I got through this form about twice before giving up and moving on. In fact the third time it didnt show me the content asking me to clean up my cache in order to see it. Havent heard that one before but oh well.

 

"Terms of use" – Why asking at upload screen… why not at signup?

This was perhaps the strangest part of the upload screen – the upload screen contains the "Terms of Usage" contract between Samaa TV and the user. This is normally done on the "signup" screen for a reason that I will highlight below, but most importantly it has to be "agreed to" for every single time you submit a story.

The "Terms of Use" contract starts with this sentence: "DO NOT AGREE TO THESE TERMS OF USE, DO NOT USE OR ACCESS SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM WEB SITES. "

I kid you not.

Oh actually (after the fourth refresh, clearing cache and loading on firefox) the contract changed to add more text to the top, the full text being:

PLEASE READ THESE TERMS OF USE CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCESSING OR USING SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM WEB SITES. YOUR USE OF OR ACCESS TO, OR LICENSE OF INFORMATION, MATERIALS, PROGRAMMING, PRODUCTS, OR ANYTHING ELSE OF USE OR VALUE ON SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM WEB SITES CONSTITUTES AGREEMENT TO ABIDE BY THE TERMS OF USE THEN IN EFFECT. IF YOU DO NOT AGREE TO THESE TERMS OF USE, DO NOT USE OR ACCESS SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM WEB SITES.

It was still hilarious to read that the first few times.

 

 

Turns out People younger than 13-years old are not allowed to use the service

Thats fine, but here’s the issue. Where do I find this info? In one small line in the middle of a paragraph in the third major section of the Terms of Use that no one is going to read anyway.

SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM is available for individuals aged 13 years or older. If you are under 13, please exit this website immediately.

As in, after that 13 year old has signed up and logged in and is about to upload… the only thing stopping him is a hidden clause in a contract asking them to leave and never return.

What I dont get is if the official "Terms of Use" disallow 13-year old and younger kids to use the service, and they are asking for a date of birth at signup, why not just restrict the login?

And more importantly, why not show the terms of usage before people sign up for the service, making this point in big bold letters in a disclaimer page before the service is used?

 

Good: "Employees (and their immediate families and household members) of SAMAA are not eligible to submit material. "

This clause from the Terms of Use is good – employees of Samaa should not be allowed to submit content because of — ahem — conflict of interest, and its good to see they’re doing that.

 

The main point to note: "By submitting your material, for good and valuable consideration, the sufficiency and receipt of which you hereby acknowledge, you hereby grant to SAMAA and its affiliates a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license to edit, telecast, rerun, reproduce, use, create derivative works from, syndicate, license, print, sublicense, distribute and otherwise exhibit the materials you submit, or any portion thereof in any manner and in any medium or forum, whether now known or hereafter devised, without payment to you or any third party."

There isnt something necessarily wrong with this statement from a legal point of view (although it depends entirely on whether individual users feel comfortable about basically working for them for free) but its important to note this before considering whether or not to be a part of this service.

 

United States copyright laws

This is confusing – the Terms of Use mentions copyrights in a number of different sections and always mention that the content is compliant with "US Copyright Code." from the Digital Millenium Copyrights Act (DMCA)

Technically though, I dont think Samaa can apply for copyright protection in the US unless it has an official office in the US and does business there? Perhaps someone can clarify this for me.

Technically, can people make claims on local users agreeing to follow US copyrights for a local company? Can actual DMCA takedown notices be created and sent locally? Wouldnt a local court require that an "alternative" or local equivalent of a DMCA takedown be used as the legal artifact in battles here?

Faisal Khan – you’d mentioned some work on DMCA so would appreciate if you could clarify.

 

Good: Rules of Conduct

The Terms of Use have some fantastic "Rules of Conduct" section, which should probably be adopted by all blogs to deal with trolls.

You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM any material that violates or infringes in any way upon the rights of others, including any statements which may defame, abuse, harass, stalk or threaten others; You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM any material that is grossly offensive to the online community, including blatant expressions of bigotry, racism, abusiveness, vulgarity or profanity. You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM any material that contains or advocates pornography, pedophilia, incest or bestiality. You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM any statements that advocate or provide instruction on illegal activity or discuss illegal activities with the intent to commit them; You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM any material that infringes and/or violates any right of a third party or any law, engage in activity that would constitute a criminal offense or give rise to a civil liability; You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM any vulgar or obscene language or images; You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM, without SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM’s express prior approval, material which contains advertising or any solicitation with respect to products or services, including, but not limited to, the solicitation of users to become subscribers of other on-line information services competitive with SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM; You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM, any software or other materials which contain a virus or other harmful or disruptive component; You agree not to post or transmit through SAMAA TV – CITIZEN JOURNALISM material or statements that do not generally pertain to the designated topic or theme of any chat room or bulletin board;

 

"Manage Media Gallery" is where we upload files but the link to it is hidden and not in the main navigation

So after I accepted the terms and submitted the form, I got the same form… with a message "Open Manage Media Gallery to upload photos". Problem was that there wasnt any link anywhere for galleries – not on the navigation, sidebars, anywhere. In fact there was tinnnny link at the bottom of the form right next to "save" that said "gallery".

Since the gallery is the main item in your entire application (where the user finally uploads content) why hide it to make it even harder to discover?

 

Clicking on the gallery link opens a lightbox

That’s one of the cardinal sins of usability – so far I’ve been presented with a structured site with sections and forms, and I’m moving in a specific flow from form to button to link, and suddenly everything goes dark.

After your hands jerk up in the air and you seek any sign of an explanation a white box pops up with an upload button.

Showing a lightbox and turning everything off when uploading is absolutely completely unnecessary. It completely breaks visual context and the user’s flow of thought; its confusing, completely unexpected and scary; and heck, the entire site is not ajax driven and goes from page to page to page which is fine… why bother with this one little element being on a fancy lightbox… why cant it just be another page that loads like THE ENTIRE APP!?

What did the vendor know he wasnt going to be paid until he could prove it was a "web 2.0" application?

 

The software changes the aspect ratios of uploaded photos – ruins the moment

Tell me something – whats the point of a citizen reporting app if I take a beautiful shot, share it with Samaa (going through the process above), and the application squishes my photo by changing its aspect ratio?

Whats the point? The entire item of value in your app is that photograph that you just squished and ruined.

 

No feedback after uploading

So the file is in the gallery, but there’s no nice way of saying "ok, move on". You have to close the lightbox, which takes you back to the "upload story" form with the terms of use (yay AJAXification), and there is no visual feedback there you have "successfully" completed the task… I thought for a while whether or not I had made a mistake and had to open the lightbox again to double-check.

 

Content appears under the "Citizen Journalism" section immediately

So after uploading, the content appears here. It is a fair site for an alpha but it has some serious issues with navigation. On google chrome if I clicked on a picture, saw it, then cilcked back on the browser it would say something about form content needs to be resubmitted showing an error page. Then I would refresh and wait 5 mins on the slow site for it to work.

For each picture I wanted to see.

 

The basic trial content up right now already has a copyright violation.

Well that shows you how effective Terms of Use agreements are…. right now there’s just a small amount of content up on the site, which suggests that it is being used mainly for testing purposes. But someone’s already uploaded an "Ace of Base" song video, despite the 4-5 sections of the Terms of Use specifically forbidding the uploading of content of which you down own the copyright.

If this was after a while when there were too many users to monitor and moderate, I woudl’ve bought but this is the first set of content… come on.

Video uses windows media player!

Seriously, who uses an embedded Windows Media Player in a post-flash-video world? Why!?

I tried watching that Ace of Base video for 10 minutes but all it did was kept buffering and buffering – it would go to 100%, then start from 10% again. Eventually I gave up realizing I have better things to do in my life than confirm whether or not that Ace of Base video really was a copyright violation. That’s Samaa’s job after all.

 

Privacy Policy Issue

E-mail addresses

If you choose to give us your email address, we will communicate with you via email. We do not share your email address with others outside the Unilever community. Depending how your email application is setup, information about you may be transmitted automatically when you send mail to Samaa TV.

What…. the … HELL!?  Data collected by Samaa TV (a NEWS Site) about its users will be shared with UniLever’s community (an advertiser?!) ??????

OMG! Now, I know many of you dont know or dont care about conflict of interest, but OMG!

 

Finally: The site made ALL my open tabs in google chrome crash

That’s right, the impossible happened. The major claim to fame of Google Chrome is that it opens each tab in its own OS process, so even if a site crashes none of the other tabs are affected.

Not so fast, says Samaa TV, whose site defies all rules defined by the OS thread manager on my machine to crash ALL 25 google chrome tabs when I try to close the samaa site.

Argh!

 

Conclusions

Well, as I said before, this is still miles better than other CJ efforts by mainstream news so far, and is also "very alpha". Also, all in all these issues arent so major that they should cant be fixed within a week.

So here’s hoping to see good things from this initiative – as I said earlier, a complete blend of user-generated news on the same website as mainstream news would be a pretty bold and landmark achievement.

Facebook comments:

8 Comments

  • It’s sad that I really wouldn’t have expected any better levels of quality of websites run by non-technical desi companies (in fact some desi techy companies have atrocious websites).

    But the website you’ve described in your review (which by the way is down right now, its giving me a “This Virtual Directory does not allow contents to be listed.” error) has some particularly glaring mistakes (I found your narrative to be extremely hilarious, my cheeks are still sore from the laughing fits):

    1) 1 tag?! what in God’s name?! I believe the designers over at Samaa (or to whoever they outsourced this to) need to read this book. I’ve personally skimmed through this book and it would be very useful for them to actually know what tagging is all about.

    2) I’m guessing the site is a quick ASP.NET drag and drop job, which could be one reason why you found it sluggish. I hate such sites. They should ban .NET in Pakistan. It’s being grossly misused.

    3) The fact that it doesn’t work in Firefox could really cost them because I’ve got a feeling that their target user base (socially and technologically aware youths of Pakistan, who know how to hook up their digital camera to their PC) might predominantly be Firefox users.

    4) Login leading you to profile page was a common mistake that I used to come across on the Net 3-4 years back. Sites have gotten smart enough to stop doing that. SamaaTV should smarten up as well.

    5) In the Aza Raskin Google Tech Talk you posted last month, he mentioned that forms are a very lazy way of interacting with the users. Its something developers use to make their work easy and user’s work hard. I agree with your recommendations. The website should do a mixture of not asking for something at all & predicting user input.

    6) LOL @ the terms of agreement. Is it just me or does it seem they’ve probably ripped off some parts of the TOA from some US website (hence the parts about US copyrights…). And are all TOA sentences really in ALL CAPS?!

    7) From the level of maturity of the interaction design of the website, I’m willing to bet that there’s ZERO processing and filtering of data happening. They’re probably just putting everything in folders and databases without recording any meta data about the media that is uploaded. One telltale sign is the repeated popping up of the license on every upload. It’s a classic case of leaving something complicated in the hands of the user. If this is the case, they will NOT be able to manage/police anything that is uploaded. I’m pretty sure someone will upload objectionable content on the site, and it will get taken down (maybe that’s why its down right now :}).

    Wow, I really should have made a blogpost out of this comment ;). Great job on the review, they really should be paying you for this :)

    But the things that’s bothering me more is why? Why does our industry keep spewing out crap like this (speaking purely from a software engineering point of view)? These are mistakes (in usability, privacy etc.) that the world has identified and remedied. Why are we still making them?!

    jafferhaider.wordpress.com (too lazy to sign out of my GreenWhite account ;))

  • Jaffer – this *should* be a blogpost on your blog! I’m getting a bit bored with coffee, give me some linkjuice atleast to make it a bit worthwhile 😉

  • @Jaffer: a few possible scenarios to make sense of the ‘why’ part (I have seen this happen more than once, if that counts) …

    * After working for 3-5 years / making half a dozen websites, an average web-developer (lets call him A) usually knows about these mistakes (though he learns them the hard way) – as soon as that happens, A is ready to take off to the US, UK or even Dubai.

    Since formal training/mentoring/apprenticeship is not exactly the foremost priority of the ‘Sayth’ IT firm owners, the void created by A is filled by A`, who is just like A, minus the 3-5 years of experience, and is bound to make the same mistakes – reminds me of a twilight zone episode where Hell was supposed to be about making your worst mistakes over and over again.

    * A big corporation working in a non-IT domain hires a temporary in-house team, but forgets to hire a software development manager to act as a mediator. Since it is an in-house team, so requirements are not frozen, feature creep is allowed, which results in a ‘spaghetti product’ not unlike this one.

    * Lots of firms bid for an attractive medium to large sized project, and the most qualified firm does not always win the project. Sometimes, the winning firm does not really have in-house expertise for that particular domain, and sometimes the bid-winning firm is small and has all the needed ambition but none of the expertise. So they quickly assemble a team and hire people not very different from A` – the team manages to develop a half-baked solution for the client that ‘covers all their requirements’ but one that does not solve the client’s actual problem, or the that of the system’s users.

  • Reallyvirtual – what can companies do when evaluating possible vendors to see whether or not they still have As or whether they’ve been replaced by A’ already..?

  • Well one thing companies could do is to explicitly specify quality attributes of the product in the requirements document. I guess right now such documents only focus on the functional requirements, which gives vendors the opening to implement the required features but totally ignore quality attributes such as privacy, usability, performance etc.

    One way of specifying these quality attributes is in the form of quality attribute scenarios, which basically gives concrete scenarios, which the product must fulfill to be considered that it has a certain quality attribute.

    This method takes away the confusion and vagueness of requirements such as ‘the product must be easy to use’. This requirement is not measurable or testable. ‘Easy to use’ means different things for different products. Quality attribute scenarios help in making these requirements more concrete.

    I guess to even just specify their own requirements in this level of detail, companies need to be tech savvy and aware of these pitfalls …

  • Jaffer can you give an example of these scenarios?

    From what I understand – you’re saying that this can work if the client requirements either have the mockups needed or explicit definition of the flow and information items on each page etc?

    I suppose if there is enough time an explicit information architecture phase must be part of the project and for most projects with front-ends this should be part of a standard price and the client shouldnt be expected to pay more if the information architecture is to be documented.

    But then that’s not practical.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how many users would go through the same experience as the above – when I do usability walk-throughs I’m intentionally trying to be an annoying and demanding user, but I’m always surprised at how forgiving many users can be…. which is to say that even if they do internal user tests (or user tests from people who arent particularly concerned about privacy or terms of use matters) its likely to get inaccurate results.

  • There are two types of scenarios here (And I have seen both of them actually happening in front of my eyes)
    1. You are a non IT company and you need some IT work done if you are a big organization (Say Sama TV or a pharmacy company) As soon as the word gets around inside the organization every one sees this as an oppurtunity so every one who has a nephew niece son relative who has touched a computer in the las 4 years becomes an expert in IT so the employee who has the right links gets the privelage to push forward his relative. the organization gives him a free hand in terms of budget and he hires few people (as cheap as he can get) and gives back the project and in some cases also charge insane maintenance fees for maintaining his crap.

    2. You are an IT company with no experience and expertise in the area but you know human resource is cheap so instead of getting the job done through proper person you hire few fresh graduates (if you are a true businessman you hire interns without paying them a cent) and get the job done through them.

    I think the proper way is to hire a consultant to give away the project and have him over look it in both the scenarios, but then in Pakistan every body becomes himself a consultant :) and the team hired by the consultant is usually his close friends or relatives and result remains the same.

  • Muhammad Imran

    My choice is Obama

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